Things looked dire for the Capitals early in Game 2 on Wednesday. Already down 1-0 in the series and 1-0 in the game, Washington had to find a way to come back to beat the Vegas Golden Knights in Vegas and they had to do it without Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov left the game in the first period after getting shaken up by a hit from Brayden McNabb. With 25 points, Kuznetsov leads the NHL this postseason and his loss was a devastating blow.
But even with no Kuznetsov for more than two periods, the Caps were able to mount a comeback and get the 3-2 win over the Golden Knights thanks to the heroics of Braden Holtby and the team's secret weapon: The Tiger.
"[Lars Eller] was outstanding," Nicklas Backstrom said. "He had a great game. He's had a great playoffs so far. It's fun to watch. That's what we need. We need everyone to step up and he really did that tonight."
In response to Kuznetsov's injury, Barry Trotz moved Backstrom up to the top line and Eller to the second. When the team needed a boost on offense, Eller provided one as he had a hand in all three of Washington's goals, scoring the first to tie the game and assisting on the other two.
"He’s a guy who is kind of our secret weapon," Alex Ovechkin said. "It’s hard to play [against him] when he’s on top of his game and when he feels the puck, when he creates the moment for us. He was pretty big for us.”
He even assisted Backstrom with a sweatshirt after the game.
"I couldn't find mine, so I just grabbed his," Backstrom said. "He's sitting next to me."
It is not the first time Eller has been called upon this postseason to take on a top-six role.
When Backstrom suffered an upper-body injury against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Eller filled in at his spot on the second line for four games. Eller's strong play made sure there was no dropoff without Backstrom. The Caps went 3-1 in those games without Backstrom and even managed to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh.
In those four games, Eller recorded two goals and three assists.
“He’s just given more responsibility, and he thrives on it," Jay Beagle said. "That shows the type of person and player that he is. Character. It’s a character thing."
Now with the status of Kuznetsov unclear, it is unknown how long the Caps will need to continue to use Eller in that second-line role. Eller is not Kuznetsov and there is no doubt losing a player that has put up 25 points in 21 games would be a huge blow to Washington if he cannot return.
While an injury to a player as important as Kuznetsov would cripple most teams, however, Washington can take heart in the fact that they have a secret weapon in Eller who, though he cannot replace Kuznetsov, can elevate his game when the team needs him in critical moments.
And the Stanley Cup Final certainly qualifies as being a critical moment.
"It seems like he gets a different confidence when one of me or [Kuznetsov] goes out," Backstrom said. "It's great. He's a great player and he's got that confidence with the puck that he can make plays. That's what we need. He had a hell of a game."
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